Eliminating Murphy’s Law

You’ve put the finishing touches on your behavior modification program, and you’re ready to launch it. Before you set sail, I suggest you make a list of all the things that could go wrong, and try to trouble-shoot as many as possible. Here are a few examples:

o You give Dan a sticker every fifteen minutes, and at the end of the day he’s eligible for a prize. What do you think his classmates will say? “It’s no fair; Dan gets prizes for sitting in his seat. I sit in my seat all day long and I don’t get anything. Maybe I should start acting like Dan, then I can get prizes too.”

One way of getting around this problem is to set up class rewards. Dan earns 25 points for staying in his seat, and everybody celebrates with a special cake. Another option is to let the entire class earn points for good behavior, and work towards a group goal of 500 points. You could also try seating Dan beside a peer, who would act as a role model to Dan, and help him earn his points.

These ideas teach Dan how to get along better with peers, as well as help peers to accept and understand Dan better. This promotes cooperation. Be sure your focus is on earning rewards, not avoiding punishment. Do not say, for instance, “Because Dan was not able to reach his point total today, you will all stay five minutes after school.”

If group rewards are not practical, you can try reasoning with the dissatisfied children. Some explanations are, “I know it doesn’t seem fair, but…

–“…it’s harder for Dan to sit in his seat than it is for you. You can sit in your seat without even thinking about it, but Dan has to try really hard. It’s not easy to try hard all the time. The stickers and prizes help Dan to keep trying, because sometimes he feels like quitting.

–“…Dan needs to prove to himself that he can do things right if he tries. The rewards help him to do the right things, so he can feel happier and better about himself. Once he knows he can sit in his seat, the same way you can, he won’t need rewards anymore, just like you don’t need them.

–“…for now Dan needs rewards to help him discover the good things about himself. If you want to help Dan sit in his seat, so he won’t need rewards anymore, why don’t you help him…”

o Dan may not like being the “special kid” in the class, the one who needs stickers to be like everybody else. Even though Dan gets goodies, he may feel dumb or like an outsider. How can you help Dan understand?

–“Can you think of any reasons why I give you stickers for sitting in your seat? Do you think I would do it if it didn’t help you?”

–“I give you stickers because it helps you sit in your seat longer. The more you sit in your seat, the better you can learn, and the less you bother other children. Look at it this way: do you think it would be fair if I had a magic pill, which you knew could help you with your schoolwork, but I wouldn’t give it to you? It wouldn’t be fair for me not to give you the magic pill. I would be stopping you from doing the best you could in school.”

–“Do you think everyone in our class looks the same? It’s the same with learning: everyone has things they’re good at and lousy at. You’re not so good at sitting in your seat, but you hit a baseball better than anybody I’ve ever seen. Theresa is always the last one to sit down on our spelling B’s, but she strikes out in baseball. Does this mean Theresa is better than you, or you’re better than her? You both have a special gift that sets you apart from everyone else in the class. I bet if we though about it, we’d find something special about all the kids in our classroom.

o Behavior modification can achieve some remarkable results–but how long will they last? What researchers have found is that as time goes by, children lose more and more of their program gains, and they do not transfer their learning to outside places and people. Even if Dan gets out of his seat only once every fifteen minutes, chances are he’ll be back to where he started by the end of the year if you don’t keep up with his program. And just because he sits in his seat in your classroom, doesn’t mean he will do the same at home, in music class, or on the bus.

There are however some ways of getting over these shortcomings. Number one is getting parents involved. Parent participation helps children carry over what they do in your classroom to their home and community, and gives you a way of maintaining children’s gains after your program is finished. Another strategy is contracting with children to monitor their own behavior, and rewarding them on a weekly or monthly basis.

o You may find that some kids, hyperactive ones for instance, react differently to getting rewards. It tends to rev them up, and distract their attention away from doing schoolwork. You may have to give these children more subtle rewards such as check-marks, and save the exciting prizes for recess, lunch, and after school. Some researchers have also found that mildly negative feedback such as, “You can do better than that,” is better for hyperactive children, because it encourages them to focus their attention and try harder.

o Another point to remember about hyperactive and younger children as well is that you must be consistent. Intermittent, “when-I-have-the-time” rewards can do more harm than good with hyperactive children. Not knowing whether they’ll get a reward or not, makes hyperactive children excited and anxious. You can avoid this by teaching children how to give themselves rewards, or get rewards from other people.

Behavior modification has a lot to offer both parents and educators in helping children change what they do and learn better. As you may have already gathered however, it carries with it an armful of extra baggage, which can bog down your workload. Even the well-thought out program is worth little if no one has the time or resources to put it into action. It is better to do something small well, than something big half-heartedly.

If I could give you only one piece of advice I’d say don’t try to do what the leading authority recommends, nor what you heard worked in the class next door–but do what you want. You are the person who knows best what fits into your classroom, what you can handle, and what will help your students most. The more commitment you have to a program, the more likely it will be a success.